True classics are timeless. Whether you're talking about a beloved animated film such as The Jungle Book or a game like Final Fantasy VI, these definitive works continue to resonate with audiences long after we've forgotten their contemporaries.
That knowledge comes with decades of hindsight, though. And contrary to what I would've expected back in 2002, Kingdom Hearts hasn't aged so well. Despite the handful of improvements and bonus content you'll find in the newly-minted Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX, it remains very much an old game with old problems. For those unfamiliar with the original release, Kingdom Hearts blends some of the most memorable Disney characters and worlds with those from Square Enix properties -- basically, think Fanservice: The Video Game. It's a fun premise, and each surprise cameo helps propel you through what would otherwise be a pretty boilerplate, save-the-girl-from-sinister-forces story.
Aside from the parts where you bump into Final Fantasy VII's Cid and that huge demon thing from Fantasia, Kingdom Hearts is about as vanilla as an action RPG gets. The game doesn't fixate on stats or gear, nor does it require much investment in terms of its combat and party management -- your comrades-in-arms, Donald and Goofy, will follow basic behavioral instructions, but fend for themselves just fine. From beginning to end there are almost no puzzles, few choices in how to progress, and only two unlockable abilities (both related to jumping) that really change the way the game plays in a significant manner.
It all feels like a stripped-down, post-Ocarina of Time Zelda. Combat in Kingdom Hearts seems especially inspired by Link's lock-on targeting, as well as his quick, predetermined sword combos. But where Nintendo's game supplements its simplistic battle system by constantly introducing new weapons and items -- not to mention plenty of foes that require the proper application of said inventory -- Kingdom Hearts never complicates things further than mashing X and occasionally firing off a spell or two.
Dull fights might not be an issue if there were much else to do in the game. Instead, Kingdom Hearts squanders its imaginative setting by leaning too heavily on endless bouts against the same handful of palette-swapped monsters. The only encounters that are even slightly interesting from a tactical standpoint involve large opponents that take more damage from behind. Otherwise, Kingdom Hearts amounts to little more than a mindless slog through hordes of too-similar enemies.
Okay, so maybe Kingdom Hearts isn't entirely about fighting dudes. You'll also have to engage in some of the worst platforming in a 3D game since Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. Something about the way series protagonist Sora handles when he's airborne has always felt wrong to me. Maybe the controls aren't precise enough -- or perhaps they're too precise? I don't know. Either way, I'm thankful that not all of the worlds in Kingdom Hearts feature mandatory jumping sections, because it helps minimize the frustration to brief, intense waves.
Gummi Ship missions account for the remainder of Kingdom Hearts' non-combat activities. These short, on-rails shooting segments occur any time you travel from one world to another, pitting your customized ship against asteroids, floating polygons, and unexplained space bad guys. I didn't care for Gummi Ships when Kingdom Hearts first released, and I'm still not a fan 11 years later. For one, these sections look like something from an uprezzed DS port thanks to the building block design of the spacecraft and the excessive pop-in throughout Gummi stages. Moreover, there's a real squirrelly quality to the ship's targeting/flight controls that I just cannot stand.
Kingdom Hearts remains an old game with old problems.
Even if a lot of the gameplay in Kingdom Hearts hasn't weathered the years very well, its cartoonish, colorful style continues to impress. Square Enix did an excellent job updating aspects of the game's look without ruining its original appeal in the process. Certain bits appear more dated than others -- when characters' beautifully-animated faces suddenly turn into flat, low-resolution textures mid-cutscene, for example -- but it's a nice job overall as far as HD remakes go.
Other welcome tweaks include improved camera controls and a more intuitive interface, both of which carry over from the Japan-only Kingdom Hearts Final Mix. I wouldn't go as far as saying they've fixed either issue, though. It's still too easy to lose track of what you're doing in the middle of a battle, and, as with previous versions of the game, it takes way too long to access potions and other items from the menu. I'll take what I can get, I guess.
In addition, Square Enix saw fit to bundle Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories -- an HD remaster of a PlayStation 2 remake of a Game Boy Advance game -- along with this collection. Its card-based combat system adds a new wrinkle to traditional Kingdom Hearts gameplay, but the bulk of the characters and environments are outright recycled from the first game. Chain of Memories makes for a fine extra, I suppose, provided you want lots more of the same. After spending more than 25 hours with Kingdom Hearts, however, I wasn't particularly interested in playing through a gimmicky remix.
Kingdom Hearts 1.5 also includes a totally incoherent retelling of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. Rather than giving the DS game the same treatment as Kingdom Hearts and Chain of Memories, someone decided it would be a good idea to just edit the cutscenes from 358/2 Days into a movie -- never mind any of the valuable context or pacing the gameplay portions might have provided! The result is a nearly three-hour fever dream during which I witnessed the following: a girl wearing a hood capable of flipping up or down depending on the camera angle; every non-Mickey Mouse character from Disney movies appearing exclusively as still images with text overlays; a bunch of angsty teens eating ice cream atop a clock tower for what I estimate to be more than half of the flick's entire runtime; and a whole lot of scenes involving people discussing events instead of anything actually happening onscreen.
I implore you: Do not watch this movie. Forget that it exists.
Chain of Memories makes for a fine extra, provided you want lots more of the same.
If you're new to the franchise, Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX still makes for the most logical starting point. It does, after all, look and play better than any previous version of the game. As for those of us who already regarded the original as a classic, I'd consider looking forward to the future of Kingdom Hearts rather than risk tarnishing fond memories of its past.
- Visuals: You won't mistake it for a modern console release, but everything looks surprisingly nice for a PlayStation 2 game.
- Audio: Many of the voice actors behind prominent Disney characters reprise their roles here. Some of the dialog sounds pretty unnatural, though.
- Interface: Slow and awkward menus do not pair well with Kingdom Hearts' real-time action. Item management is also a chore.
- Lasting Appeal: It'll take most people quite a while to work through both Kingdom Hearts and the Chain of Memories remake, and even then there's a good amount of bonus content on top of that.
Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX is, without question, the best version of Kingdom Hearts to date. But it also serves as an excellent reminder that the things we love aren't always built to last.
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